Basing Ethics on Sound Theology

June 22, 2015

Some persons question whether there is any appropriate relationship between Theology and Ethics. In fact, Theology and Ethics are integrally interconnected. We see this interconnection of Theology and Ethics illustrated in the epistles of the Apostle Paul. The characteristic structure of the Pauline epistles is for the first half of the letter to address Theology (who God is and what He does), and the second half to address Ethics (who we are in Christ and what we should do). Usually these two sections are linked by the transitional word “therefore,” because who we are and what we should do as believers is properly based in who God is and what He does. If the goal of the Christian life is to become more Christlike, then we must know the character and actions of God to know who we are to be in Christ.

As an illustration of how Ethics flows from Theology, I will describe three key characteristics of who God is (and what He does) and their implications for who we should be and what we should do. These three characteristics are (a) God is love, (b) God is holy, and (c) God is just. In arguing that ethical standards flow from God’s character, let me first explain the important relationship between “being” and “doing.” Ethicists sometimes debate which is the more important – being a good person or doing good things. The truth is that both of these are important. God does what He does because He is who He is. His actions flow from his character. Likewise, believers must have a godly character in order to do ethical deeds. It is possible to do apparently good deeds but do so with a wrong motive. Jesus condemned actions done with such an improper inner motivation. To be truly good, a deed must not only be good in itself, but must flow from the right motivation. An apparently good person who does not do good deeds is not truly moral, and a person who does apparently good deeds with bad motivations in not truly moral, either. Being the right person and doing the right thing are both crucial to a deed being truly moral. Now, let us look at who God is (and what He does), and explore what that means for who we should be in Christ and what we should do.

God is love. John the Apostle made the bold pronouncement that not only does God do loving things, but He is love (1 John 4:8, 16). Love is characteristic of who God is. This same divine character trait is described in various similar ways in Scripture. God is “gracious and compassionate” (2 Chron. 30:9, Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2, HCSB), and is “slow to anger and abounding in love” (Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2). God is “merciful” (Deut. 4:31, Dan. 9:9). How is God’s love expressed in actions? He loved the world so much that He sent his own Son to provide atonement for those who would believe (John 3:15-17). Our loving Father bestows “great love,” “great mercy,” and “great compassion” on fallen humanity (Neh. 9:31; Ps. 5:7, 25:6, Luke 1:58; Eph. 2:4, 1 Pet. 1:3). God is gracious not only to believers, but to ungrateful and evil persons (Luke 6:35). He bestows blessings and providential care on the righteous and unrighteous alike (Matt. 5:45), and does not show favoritism of people based on their race or social status (Acts 10:34; Rom. 2:11, Gal. 2:6, Eph. 6:9). God’s love is consistent; it is described in Scripture as a steadfast or “faithful love” (2 Chron. 1:8, Ezra 3:11, Ps. 86:13, 103:11, 117:2, 145:8, Jer. 32:18 ), a love that is eternal (Ps. 136:4, 7).

What are the implications of God’s love for believers? Since God is love, we are to be loving. In fact, Jesus taught that loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength is the first and greatest commandment, but the second is “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:36-39). Indeed, Jesus said, “All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments” (v. 39, a concept repeated in Rom. 13:9). James described love of neighbor as the “royal law” of Scripture (Jas. 2:8). Indeed, Jesus said that the distinguishing mark by which those who are His disciples may be known is “if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). This priority on God’s people being loving is consistent throughout Scripture. Micah the prophet said that to “love mercy” is one of three things that God requires of His people (Mic. 6:8), and the Apostle Paul dedicated an entire chapter of his first epistle to the Corinthians to proclaim love as the “greatest” of all the virtues (1 Cor. 13:1-13). Because God has loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins, “we also must love one another” (1 John 4:10-11). Indeed, “the one who does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8), for, as John asserts, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen. And we have this command from Him: The one who loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:20). The love that godly persons should have is not merely a feeling, but is made manifest in loving, compassionate, merciful actions.

God is holy. The “pole” in God’s personal character that complements and balances His love is God’s holiness. The Bible makes it clear that God is holy, just as He is love (Lev. 19:2; Josh. 24:19; 1 Sam. 2:2, 6:20; Ps. 77:13, 78:41, 99:9; Isa. 5:16, 29:23, 30:15, 43:3, 48:17, 54:5, 55:5, 60:9;Jer. 51:5; Rev. 4:8). God is also described as being righteous (Deut. 32:4; Ps. 7:9-11, 50:6, 116:5, Isa. 45:21; Dan. 9:14). God’s holiness and righteousness is sometimes expressed in His wrath against sin (Exo. 15:7; Deut. 29:28; 2 Kings 22:13, 17; 2 Chron. 19:2, 34:25, 36:16; Ps. 6:1, 7:11, 21:9, 38:1, 78:38, 90:11; Isa. 13:13, 30:30; Jer. 4:4, 7:20, 21:5, 23:19, 25:15, 30:23, 32:31, 33:5, 44:6; Ezek. 7:19, 8:18, 13:13, 20:33-34; Nah. 1:2; Zeph. 1:18; John 3:36; Rom. 1:18). Another way of describing this aspect of God’s character is that He is perfect (Deut. 32:4; 2 Sam. 22:31; Ps. 18:32, Matt. 5:48).

God’s people are called upon also to be holy, just as God is holy (Exo. 19:6, 22:31; Lev. 11:45; 19:2, 20:7; Num. 15:40; Deut. 7:6, 14:2; Eph. 1:4; 2 Pet. 3:11). Believers are called upon to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). No human is innately righteous, however, and thus we can only receive holiness and righteousness as a gift through faith (Rom. 1:17, 3:22, 4:5, 9:30, 10:6; Phil. 3:9; Heb. 11:6). Nonetheless, our faith is vital only if it is manifested in actual good works (Jas. 1:22-26, 2:14-26).

God is just.

God is just and acts justly (Deut. 32:4; Ps. 48:10; Isa. 5:16, 30:18; Rom. 9:14; Heb. 1:8). Another of the three requirements the prophet Micah lists for what God requires of persons is to “act justly” (Mic. 6:8). God desires that the weaker members of a society be treated with justice (Ps. 10:14, 18, 68:5, 146:9). The Old Testament called time and again for compassion to be shown on the most helpless members of ancient society – the widow, the orphan or child of a single-parent home, and the alien/foreigner (Exo. 22:22; Deut 10:18, 14:29, 16:11-14, 24:17-21, 26:12-13, 27:9, 82:3; Isa. 1:17; Jer. 22:3, Zech 7:10; Mal. 3:5). Likewise, in the New Testament, James described one mark of “pure and undefiled religion” to be caring for orphans and widows (Jas. 1:27). Dishonest scales and bribing judges are detestable to God (Exo. 23:8; Deut. 10:17, 16:19, 27:25, Prov. 11:1, 16:11, 20:23; Isa. 1:23; Ezek. 45:10; Amos 5:12, 8:5; Mic. 6:11).

We can extrapolate all ethical teachings from the character of God and/or the teachings and commandments of God in Scripture. Ethics and Theology are not strangers; they are inseparably bound together.

Steve Lemke

Dr. Steve Lemke is Provost and Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where he occupies the McFarland Chair of Theology. He is also Director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry and Editor of the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24